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Obituary: Lord Deedes

Lord Deedes
Bill Deedes was a link with a more genteel era

William "Bill" Deedes was the cub reporter who became the Grand Old Man of Fleet Street.

His crisp, precise prose was as sparkling, and as sharp, in his 90s as it was when he joined the now-defunct Morning Post straight from Harrow in 1931.

He was reporting and writing until the end, particularly on the plight of Africa and the famines hitting countries including Ethiopia and Sudan.

His last column, which compared the situation in Darfur to the Holocaust, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 3 August.

The only man to have been both a Cabinet minister and the editor of a national newspaper, Deedes was the last working representative of Fleet Street's pre-war generation.

Waugh's inspiration

Jeremy Deedes, his son and former Daily Telegraph managing director, said: "The Daily Telegraph was his great love and his dearest wish was to die in harness which happily is how it ended."

His friend, the author Evelyn Waugh, used him as the inspiration for William Boot, the naive yet plucky journalist hero of the novel Scoop. Years later, Deedes was the Bill in Private Eye's Dear Bill letters.

Bill Deedes as Editor of the Daily Telegraph
The Grand Old Man of Fleet Street

William Francis Deedes was born in 1913. His family home, Saltwood Castle in Kent, was the place from where the knights who murdered St Thomas a Becket set out, and later the home of the Conservative MP and renowned diarist, Alan Clark.

Young William was educated at Harrow School, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 wiped out the family fortune and ended any hopes of Deedes entering university.

So, upon leaving school, he turned down a job at Marks and Spencer before joining the Morning Post at the tender age of 16.

In 1935 the Post sent the enthusiastic young Deedes to Abyssinia to cover the brutal suppression of its people by Italian occupation forces. It was there that he encountered Evelyn Waugh.

Later, Deedes mused about Waugh's creation of William Boot.

Bill Deedes addressing a Conservative Party conference in the 1960s
Addressing a Conservative Party conference in the 1960s
"What may have inspired him," he said, "was the fact that the Morning Post saw fit to send me out with a quarter of a ton of luggage.

"Evelyn found that hilarious, and to some extent I suppose I have to admit that my naivety at 22 might have given him the germ of an idea."

A brief spell as a lobby correspondent and reporter on The Daily Telegraph, which had absorbed the Post in 1937, was ended by the outbreak of World War II.

Family party seat

Deedes spent the best part of the war commanding a company of the Queen's Westminsters and won the Military Cross for valour in North-West Europe.

Returning to Fleet Street upon demobilisation, Bill Deedes was elected as Conservative MP for Ashford in 1950.

A pensive Bill Deedes with a pencil in his mouth
Deedes edited The Daily Telegraph for 12 years
He represented the seat, which had previously been held by his grandfather and great-grandfather, for 24 years.

In 1962, after he had sacked half of his senior ministers, Harold Macmillan brought Bill Deedes into the Cabinet as information minister, with a brief to improve the government's image. He remained in the post for two years.

Bill Deedes' compassionate Conservatism was evident even in the 1930s, when he created a fund to give Christmas presents to under-privileged children, and helped found the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence.

Diana's chaperone

In 1974 he became editor of the Daily Telegraph, where he remained at the helm for 12 competent, if undistinguished, years.

Shurely shum mishtake
A celebrated Billism

The characteristic mixed metaphors which peppered Bill Deedes' speech (such as "We've got to nail our matchbox to the mast") were enjoyed by Telegraph journalists, who christened them Billisms.

Returning to reporting in 1986, Deedes became a special correspondent and columnist for the Telegraph where he campaigned against landmines.

In this role he chaperoned a fellow campaigner, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, on visits to Angola and Bosnia.

In his later years as a journalist, he focused on the plight of Africa, combining it with work for the poverty charity Care.

According to the Daily Telegraph, he wrote his last columns on a laptop from his bed.

Enduring personality

Famous for his slurred speech, Bill Deedes was the regular golfing partner of the late Sir Denis Thatcher who, fictionally, wrote the Dear Bill letters serialised in Private Eye.

Bill Deedes with golfing partner and friend Sir Denis Thatcher
Fore! Bill Deedes with golfing partner and friend Sir Denis Thatcher
He was elevated to the peerage in 1986 as Baron Deedes of Aldington and was knighted for his services to journalism in 1999.

The glint in Bill Deedes' eye was still there in old age. He remained an animated and engaging personality blessed with a razor-sharp memory, his powers seemingly undiminished by time.

He was the last of a breed, the final link with a more genteel, some would say more stylish, era in which manners counted more than money and in which the integrity of Fleet Street was beyond question.

A look back at the life of Lord Deedes

Lord Deedes suffers stroke
04 Feb 01 |  UK News

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